After a horrible thunderstorm at G-Fest 2017 in Muskogee, Oklahoma, fiddler Kyle Dillingham, Monica Taylor of the Cherokee Maidens, and Steve Short from Byron Berline’s band and I headed to the International House of Pancakes for breakfast and coffee. Kyle entered with his banjo gig-bag and fiddle in tow. Known for his fiery fiddling throughout the world, Kyle had written a tune the night before on the banjo.
Not especially known for his picking skills, Dillingham picked up his banjo case, and brought out his “doorstop” drop-off – which was in need of repairs – and began to play. In a matter of moments, management came over to ask Dillingham to put his instrument away as they were having complaints. Short had already left the table, and was behind us in a booth with John McEuen, who asked, “Does he know how to play that?” Short, with his blue eyes and dimpled grin, said, ”He’s not a banjo player, he’s a fiddler.”
In a twinkling, McEuen was at OUR table, and as he took Kyle’s banjo in hand, Dillingham said, “I was reprimanded for playing that.” John just smiled and began picking. The next 45 minutes were like a dream, as an impromptu concert took place. There were no more complaints and you could have heard a pin drop in that restaurant. Some lucky young man came over to the table and thanked us for the concert because he wanted to go to G-Fest, but couldn’t afford it. All of us in the IHOP enjoyed a FREE concert, but “lucky” was given an compact disc of Dillingham’s, autographed by Taylor, Dillingham, Short, and John McEuen. Oh, I signed it too.
Recently over lunch in Oklahoma City, McEuen gave me the honor of a personal interview. As we sat there over a glass of iced tea, a sparkle came into John’s eyes, as he was reminiscing over his life on the road… and before. In 1962, McEuen could be found dabbling in magic in Disneyland’s Magic Shop. Although gifted at magic, but not quite Houdini, John knew that he was made to entertain… to perform, and to be the center of attention.
It wasn’t long before John was bitten by the mysterious bug of music. He was thinking it would be his stepping stone on the path to a showbiz career, so in 1965, with borrowed money from his father, John booked Bob Dylan for a concert in a high school auditorium in Long Beach, California. To his surprise, this was his first sell out, and McEuen took his earnings, after repayment of the loan, and purchased his first banjo. Within five year’s time, McEuen and Steve Martin, who worked together at the magic shop and grew up mere blocks from one another, were teacher and student of the banjo. “Steve says he learned a lot of banjo from me. I could just steal notes off records quicker. Some of my favorite banjo tunes have been written by Steve, and I learned a lot from him,” McEuen states.
McEuen has recorded over 40 albums – with 7 of those being his own solo projects – earning him 4 Platinum and 5 Gold records, plus Grammy nominations, CMA and ACM awards, an Emmy nomination, an IBMA record of the year award, and induction in 2017 into the Banjo Hall of Fame. John has produced another 7 albums and 15 film scores, and performed more than 400 concerts throughout his career. In 2010, McEuen produced Steve Martin’s The Crow, and was honored when that album was awarded The Best Bluegrass Grammy. Music of the Wild West (also produced by McEuen) won the Western Heritage award. John has also written a must-read biography, published in 2018, The Life I’ve Picked: A Banjo Player’s Nitty Gritty Journey. And let’s not forget his Acoustic Traveler Show, which has been aired on Sirius/XM radio for almost 10 years. From magician, to musician, to producer, you couldn’t imagine that there is more to John McEuen… but there is.
John is a family man, and family is the epicenter of his life. One day years ago while he was traveling, McEuen borrowed a young Tanya Tucker because he was missing his own daughter. McEuen stated, “I asked her parents if I could take her to the amusement park, and we had a great time.”
A true aficionado of the famed Fig Newton, John shared a special moment from his memory where his children were in the car and they all wanted a cookie. “Before you knew it, there weren’t any left. One day my daughter asked what was inside a fig newton, and I told her ‘worms.’ I always had cookies left after that.”
Probably my favorite recollection he shared was of when his daughter was young and they were in Colorado. Standing on a rock above a body of water as the temperature dropped, he told her, “watch that water.” Right before their eyes, through the mist on the water, as John whispered to capture her attention, they saw the water… suddenly… freeze. Personally, I saw a side of McEuen that everyone can see. Yes, everyone. Throughout his performance, he shares little excerpts of life on the road and with his family. His grandchildren call him Grandpa Banjo, and the title fits him perfectly. Pride is not something that McEuen struts about; however, he is extremely proud of his children, eyes gleaming as he shared that his stepson Ritchi was competing in the IronMan competition in Santa Cruz, CA.
While John McEuen is known for playing with the greats, a ever growing list including Lester Flatt, Earl Scruggs, Bill Monroe, the Dillards, and even Air Supply, know that under the surface his heartbeat is family.